A Tragic Year That Was
(Note: This article appeared in the ABS-CBN Interactive Yearender for 2006, edited by Joel Saracho.)
The fire on Christmas Day that killed 25 people in Ormoc City punctuated a year marked by disasters – natural and man-made.
The images are still clear --- an iron gate at ULTRA, the buried village of Guingsaugon, the stained beaches of Guimaras, the town of Guinobatan --- grim reminders of human weakness, ecological neglect and of our own mortality.
But much like the man in Picasso’s "Guernica," the Filipino remains standing amidst the rubble --- the spirit unbroken.
They were mostly mothers and aging grandmothers who trooped to the ULTRA and held vigil at the Capt. Javier Gate on February 4 for the first anniversary of the popular ABS-CBN noontime show "Wowowee." All they were hoping for was to gain entry and perhaps a chance to win either a jeepney, a house and lot or a few thousands of pesos.
The crowd kept growing hours before the program, and eventually got out of control. Everybody wanted to get in.
Then the unimaginable happened.
Instead of bringing home a prize, 71 people lost their lives in what turned out to be the worst stampede over a television program. Slippers, shoes, bag and other personal belongings were left everywhere. Four-year old Julian Elaine was among those who died. Her mother, Myrna Book, said, “Ligtas na sana siya dahil may nag-akyat sa kanya sa bubong ng waiting shed, pero nung nakita niya ako sa baba, tumalon siya (She was already safe when a man lifted her to the roof. But she jumped from the roof when she saw me below)."
Immediately, accusing fingers pointed in all directions, even as Eugenio Lopez III, president of ABS-CBN, took full responsibility for the incident. A case has been filed at the Pasig City Regional Trial Court against officials and employees of the network. But there is also a pending preliminary investigation by the justice department on Pasig Mayor Vicente Eusebio and Pasig City police officials.
But the relatives of those who died opted not to pursue any legal action against any entity. With the assistance of the 71 Dreams Foundation, a group put up by ABS-CBN Foundation, relatives of those who perished in the stampede have started rebuilding their lives. Their loved ones may have not brought home a jeepney, or a house and lot or a few thousands of pesos, but with adequate amounts of financial assistance from the foundation, they are now living the dreams of those who died at ULTRA.
It was a sunny morning on February 17. In Guingsaugon village in the town of St. Bernard, Southern Leyte, schoolchildren were already inside their classrooms. Fathers were attending to their coconut fields while mothers tended their homes. There was also a gathering of nurses and health workers in the village gymnasium. Then the residents heard a roar growing louder by the second. The earth seemed to follow the sound, engulfed the village and buried almost everything.
Cristine Jane Pia, a three-year-old girl, was the first human face of the mudslide caught by the lens of ABS-CBN and was later on flashed on television sets the world over. She was supposed to be the symbol of hope for the victims of the tragedy. But a day later, she succumbed to cerebral hemorrhage at the Anahawan District Hospital.
“Takbo tayo! (Let’s run!)" were the only words uttered by Evangeline Arcay that fateful morning. For her, it was like being chased by fast cars running hundreds of kilometers per hour. She was lucky she was at the far edge of the village. It was only later that she would realize that she lost her father and her husband.
The following days were the toughest for those who survived. There was the inexplicable guilt that they were not there when rocks and mud rolled and rumbled. Worse, looking for relatives among the dead was a painful experience.
That killer mudslide was the worst in recent history with an estimated 200 bodies recovered while 1,500 remained missing, including those inside the schoolbuilding and gymnasium within the village.
On February 26, nine days after the tragedy, Southern Leyte Governor Rosette Lerias declared that there were no more signs of life under the mudslide and that rescue operations have shifted to retrieval work. Now a wooden cross stands in Guingsaugon in memory of those who died and to give hope to those they left behind. The village is now considered a sacred sanctuary and those who survived were relocated to safer areas to let their physical and emotional wounds heal.
Wearing rubber gloves and using dishwashing liquid and a scouring pad, Remmy Cayanan was busy scrubbing rocks on the beach of Nueva Valencia town in Guimaras. With a bitter smile, she laments the loss of their clean sea “Eto wala na ang malinis na dagat namin (Our unpolluted waters are gone).” For P500 a day, Remmy was among those hired by Petron Corporation to help in cleaning up the black greasy mess on the coastline of the town for two weeks.
On August 11, the M/T Solar 1 owned by Sunshine Maritime Corporation and carrying some 200,000 liters of bunker fuel oil of Petron, sank off the coast of Guimaras. Thousands of liters of bunker fuel oil found its way on the pristine beaches of the island province, also famous for its sweet and succulent golden yellow mangoes.
In a letter to Petron president Khalid Al-Faddagh, the provincial government of Guimaras declared these statistics: 239 kilometers of coastlines affected; 58 hectares of seaweed plantations damaged; 105 hectares of mangrove areas hit; 1,180 fisherfolks who temporarily lost their jobs; and numerous cases of respiratory illnesses and stomach and skin disorders reported. Accordingly, this is the worst oil spill in the country.
Days after local and international uproar, Petron and Sunshine Maritime have owned up to the responsibility for the oil spill. But the bulk of the task of rehabilitating Guimaras now lies on the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund, an international body whose mission is partly to provide financial assistance to residents affected by massive oil spills. Despite claims made by Petron that the physical cleanup of the affected coastlines is 100-percent complete, traces of oil can still be found on the beaches of Guimaras. Complete rehabilitation is another thing and it may take several years.
It is thus painfully difficult for Remmy to erase from her memories the black smudge on the white-sand beaches of her province, especially after toiling under the hot sun just to clean up the mess left by the sunken ship. But she is fervently hoping that in due time, fish will thrive once more in their waters, vulnerable mangroves will soon recover and their simple and quiet lives in Guimaras will be back.
From July to August this year, Mt. Mayon erupted and spewed ashes. Even Mt. Bulusan in nearby Sorsogon province also showed a series of activities spewing ashes but the Bicolanos were relatively unscathed. Volcanic eruption is the dreaded catastrophe in this province south of Manila.
The Bicolanos could not believe that a typhoon could cause widespread devastation. But supertyphoon Reming did. According to the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), Reming claimed the lives of 734 people with 762 more still missing as of this writing. All in all, 14 provinces were affected and 2,360 were injured. The region was heavily pummeled by strong winds but the effect of the mudflow from Mayon was worse. Hardest-hit was the town of Guinobatan in Albay, where hundreds of residents died after getting caught in the middle of raging mudflow from the slopes of the volcano. Almost equally affected are Daraga town and Legazpi City, the capital of the province.
Just like in Guingsaugon in Southern Leyte, some bodies were recovered but others were not. Houses along the path of the mudflows got buried under black sand and huge rocks. Some families were lucky to be able to dig into their houses and salvage what they can. Still, others had to squeeze themselves in damaged schoolbuildings as there was nothing left of what they had before.
“Hindi na makatulog ng maayos ang tatay ko kakaisip kung nasaan ang mga kamag-anak namin (My father could hardly sleep now thinking about what could have happened to our relatives)," says Jun Mapula of Daraga, Albay. Still hoping they would be able to find their missing relatives, Jun posted their pictures at the entrance door of the municipal hall.
The tragedy brought back religiosity among the common folk. “Yung mga kapit-bahay namin narinig namin na nagdadasal, yung iba nangangako nga na hindi na iinom (I heard some of my neighbors praying, some even promising they would quit drinking)," said Azucena Carimpong.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology explained the mudflows were triggered by the heavy amount of rainfall brought by Reming, one of the highest in recent history at 46.6 centimeters. PHIVOLCS said rainwater loosened volcanic deposits from the volcano causing tons of mud and rocks to storm villages around Mt. Mayon.
Other supertyphoons also hit the country this year. Just a few days before Reming came, "Milenyo" ravaged Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces. But rainfall from Reming was presumably the worst this year. This even prompted environmental groups such as Greenpeace to once again raise the alarm on global warming causing extreme weather conditions. It was definitely a bleak Christmas and even a bleaker New Year for the victims of the mudslide in Albay.
But 10-year old Armela Arkero, who lost her three siblings, remains hopeful. With her parents who also survived, Armela is starting a new life in Pangasinan, the hometown of her maternal grandparents. As she leaves the province of Albay, she said, “Milagro po yung pagkakaligtas namin, sana naman po makayanan namin ito (It was a miracle we survived. I hope we can carry on with our lives) ."